Report: Trump to name net neutrality critic Ajit Pai next FCC chairman

Report: Trump to name net neutrality critic Ajit Pai next FCC chairman

ajit pai fccGetty/Chip Somodevilla
Ajit Pai, right, and former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

President Donald Trump plans to name Ajit Pai as head of the Federal Communications Commission, according to a report from Politico’s Alex Byers and Tony Romm.

Pai has served as a GOP commissioner at the FCC since 2012. He was widely expected to at least be named interim chairman after outgoing boss Tom Wheeler announced he would depart the agency on Inauguration Day.

Politico’s report, however, says Pai will be named Wheeler’s official replacement. A formal announcement could come as soon as Friday, according to the report. Pai would be able to take the mantle immediately since he has already been confirmed by the Senate as a commissioner under Barack Obama’s administration.

Spokespeople for Pai and the FCC did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

While expected, the appointment would align with signs that Trump’s FCC would roll back Obama-era policies – most notably the 2015 Open Internet Order, which set today’s net-neutrality rules.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo is seen before the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington February 26, 2015.  REUTERS/Yuri GripasThomson Reuters

Broadly speaking, those laws regulate the internet as a public utility. More practically, they’re meant to keep internet service providers from blocking or slowing down certain content – which could benefit services owned by an ISP itself – or forcing others to pay fees to receive preferential treatment.

Larger telecom companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have generally opposed the 2015 law, while smaller ISPs and internet companies like Netflix and Google, among others, have expressed support.

Pai has vocally dissented from most of Wheeler’s policies, however, and, along with fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly, he voted against the net-neutrality order in 2015. He also opposed Wheeler’s proposed reform of the set-top-box market.

Instead, he has maintained a strong desire to deregulate telecoms companies and lessen the reach of the FCC as a whole – a view that has often sat favorably with large ISPs.

In a December speech to the conservative-leaning Free State Foundation, for instance, Pai said he was “more confident than ever” that the current net-neutrality law’s “days are numbered,” and that he’d like the future FCC to “fire up the weed wacker” and remove numerous regulations currently in place.

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

A recent report from Multichannel News said that Trump’s FCC transition team is aiming to follow along those lines by removing some of the FCC’s regulatory powers and shifting them to other agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Wheeler has said that such moves could dramatically lessen the ability of large ISPs to be affected by federal oversight.

If named chairman, Pai would take control of a shorthanded FCC to start, with O’Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn the only commissioners. Trump will have to name another Democrat and another Republican to fill out the agency.

If Pai is named Wheeler’s official replacement, however, it would allow him and the Republican-led Senate to put their plans in motion as soon as possible, according to Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. That said, any changes to net neutrality laws and the like would take months, though, and include a period of public comment.

Like Wheeler, Pai has spent time directly serving telecom interests, having worked as a lawyer for Verizon from 2001 to 2003. (Notably, he has also been a staffer for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a close Trump aide and Trump’s pick for attorney general.)

If he follows through on his past rhetoric, however, his FCC is likely to take a sharp turn from what we’ve seen in the past four years.

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